The city of Spokane Valley has been preparing for months for the first snowfall to test its secondhand plows and newly hired drivers after Spokane County canceled its plowing contract with the city.
After the first flakes hit the streets in mid-December, Public Works Director Neil Kersten gave a sigh of relief when everything worked well.
The city has six former state Department of Transportation trucks with plows attached and four graders provided through a contract with Poe Asphalt. Poe also provides all but two of the drivers. Since the trucks can go fast, they are assigned to arterials and flat streets. The graders have longer blades and are used on wide major arterials like Sprague Avenue and on hilly streets.
“The graders are all-wheel drive,” Kersten said. “(The trucks) don’t quite have the traction.”
That’s not to say there weren’t a few hitches the first time out.
Most of the Valley got about 4 inches of snow; Kersten was expecting less. The trucks hit the streets at 3 a.m. when it was still snowing; the graders didn’t start until 6:30 a.m. As a result, Sprague had not been plowed by the time morning rush hour began. In the future, Kersten plans to have the grader drivers start work earlier. “It didn’t go perfect, and we learned some things,” he said.
The other problems were minor and mostly tied to the drivers’ inexperience. Some had never driven a snowplow before, which slowed down the work.
“We did knock down a few trash cans,” Kersten said. “They didn’t realize how hard the snow was flying off the blade,”
But no one complained about the trash cans. The city only received two complaints about the plowing not getting done fast enough, Kersten said. Clearing the arterials and hilly areas took between five and six hours, and Kersten expects that number to drop as the drivers get more practice. “Hopefully we’ll get nothing but better,” he said.
Kersten was relieved that the first snow event was relatively minor.
“We were just really fortunate that WSDOT was able to help us out and sell us the equipment,” he said.
The city is also prepared in case a major snowstorm like last year’s comes through. It trained 25 drivers and have contractors ready to provide additional graders. In a major snowstorm the city would focus on primary and secondary arterials as well as hilly residential streets. The city’s plow plan only calls for grading flat residential streets on the Valley floor if “functional traffic flow is substantially inhibited.”
How much snow that means depends on whether it is light and fluffy or heavy and wet.
“When people are having trouble navigating those areas, we’ll get in and plow them unless it looks like it’s going to melt,” Kersten said.